Friday, March 10, 2006

Limey humor


Phil Johnson said...

Adrian: "His response at first startled me as a sensitive Brit. His post is titled 'Sendin' Some Love to the iMonk'."

Sorry to jar your Englishman's sense of refinement. To try to partially make up for it, next time I'm there, instead of coffee in the train station, I'll treat you to high tea at Fortnum & Mason.

But for the life of me, I don't understand how the culture that produced "Red Dwarf" can be continually stymied and outraged at simple American candor.

Ah, well. My blood is Welsh and Scottish. I guess that explains a lot.
10 March, 2006 02:32


I can appreciate Bro. Phil’s perplexity. It’s like being invited to dinner by a tribe of Anglicized head-hunters, where it’s a faux-pas to sip Earl Grey without extending a little pinkie, but quite all right to consume the little pinkie of a dinner guest.

Traditionally, British humor feeds off the tension between social conventions and the comedic possibilities that such conventions invite.

In a country which historically had royalty, prelacy, and aristocracy, there are all sorts of silly rules about how to behave before your elders and betters.

Because one’s social superiors enjoyed ascribed status rather than achieved status, the only way to differentiate the commoner from his “betters” was through foppish attire and royal etiquette.

This is the basis for the comedy of manners, such as you find in Shakespeare, Congreve, Sterne, and Pope, or Oscar Wilde as well as Gilbert and Sullivan, not coincidentally produced during the Victorian era, or the youthful comedies of Alex Guinness, leading up to Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Red Dwarf, and the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy—to name a few.

This is one reason that some comedies, like Elizabethan comedy, fall flat for a modern audience. Their social conventions are so far removed from our own culture that the comedic situations are no longer comical to us.

Likewise, one wonders, given the universal irreverence in contemporary English culture, if this long-standing genre hasn’t run its course. There can be no impropriety when the framework of social propriety is smashed beyond all recognition.

Because we sent the redcoats packing, the same irreverence is a fixture of American humor, from Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court to The Dukes of Hazzard and The Beverley Hillbillies, as well as late-night comedy—not to mention Jewish humor, which is a world unto itself.

This is how a stuffed shirt like John Kerry can be blindsided by a “cowboy” like George Bush.

Political cartooning is also an exercise in class warfare.

Comedy is often coarse, but there is a theology of humor. It skewers human pride and vainglory. Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly is a classic case.

And, sin apart, humor reminds us of our finitude and creaturely limitations—as half-angel, half-animal.

Still, it would be helpful if our betters across the pond were to mail us a copy of the Cannibal Code of Conduct so that we’ll know the next time whether to eat your mother-in-law before or after the fourth course.

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